Islamic terrorists in Nigeria crossed a new line on Sunday. After carrying out hundreds of attacks in recent years on churches, schools, and Nigerian police and military targets, Boko Haram militants gunned down 44 worshipers inside a mosque in Borno state on Aug. 11. Twenty-six more worshipers were hospitalized with gunshot wounds.
In conjunction with the massacre, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau released a video announcing the group will target the United States, France, and other countries who do not abide by the teachings of the Quran.
Human rights attorney Emmanuel Ogebe told me it’s not the first time the group has called out the U.S. He said Boko Haram has complained about the U.S. invasion of Iraq and detentions in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In 2003, it called itself the Nigerian Taliban because of American involvement in Afghanistan. “They’re very, very in tune to the U.S.,” Ogebe said.
Last year, Johnnie Carson, then the U.S. State Department’s assistant secretary of African affairs, insisted “religion is not driving extremist violence” in the country, but Shekau’s proclamation again demonstrates his group’s religious motivations.
“Until now, the U.S. has tried to portray the problem with Boko Haram as a domestic Nigerian issue,” said Katharine Gorka with the Westminster Institute, one of several nonprofit groups working to find solutions to the conflict in Nigeria. “There’s growing evidence that it’s international in scope. They have international ties and international ambitions.”
The State Department has refused to name Boko Haram—which means “Western education is sinful”—a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), despite calls from advocacy groups and lawmakers to do so. An FTO designation, which Great Britain issued last month, would impose travel restrictions, freeze financial assets, and allow tracking of arms and financing.
“It’s ironic the State Department is afraid to label Boko Haram a foreign terrorist organization, but they are not afraid to call out the U.S. as a target,” Ogebe said.
Iranian and Hezbollah weapons have reportedly surfaced in Nigeria, and last week a report tied al-Qaeda to the oil-rich country. Three U.S. officials told The Daily Beast a conference call with some 20 top-level al-Qaeda operatives in various countries, including Nigeria, caused the recent string of 22 U.S. embassy closures.
Nigerian security forces announced on Tuesday they killed Mohammed Bama, Boko Haram’s second-in-command, but authorities in two states couldn’t agree on how or where the terrorist died—and no one has produced proof of his death.
Even before Sunday’s mosque attack, moderate Muslim youths began turning in militants to authorities—prompting about a dozen revenge killings. The grassroots resistance, while welcomed by Nigerian Christians, may be too little too late: Boko Haram claims it’s now stronger than the Nigerian military.
Last month, Ayo Oritsejafor, leader of Nigeria’s 80 million Christians, called America’s ambivalence a “stunning betrayal” of the largest U.S. trade partner in the region.
“We need you now,” he said. “We must rise as one and say, ‘No, never again.’”